‘I remember the fear. We played football and the alarms went off. It was normal’
The alarms are ringing and Luka Modric is running because soon the bombs are coming. He is eight years old, wearing full kit and boots, and he has a football under his arm.
When he arrives at the underground shelter, the rest of his team-mates jogging in behind him, he has to wait.
Sometimes minutes, often hours and occasionally overnight, sleeping on the floor and staying until it was quiet, meaning it was safe to go outside. But Modric still had the ball.
“I was with it all the time,” he tells AFP in an exclusive interview. “When I went to the shelter I took it with me and I played with my friends, with everyone. I organised games. It meant everything to me.”
The Croatian War of Independence forced his family to leave their home just outside Zadar in 1991 but in the Hotel Kolovare, where they lived for seven years, Modric still played.
“I broke so many windows at the hotel and of people’s cars, everyone was always mad at me,” he says. “My father had to pay for it,” he grins. “It was expensive.”
Football offered an escape. “I remember the fear,” he says. “We played football and the alarms went off. It was normal.”
– ‘Fearless’ –
Two decades later and still nobody can get the ball off Modric, Real Madrid’s dancing playmaker, who can twist away from an opponent or wriggle through them, a midfield metronome described by his Croatian team-mate Ivan Rakitic as “one of the best ever in his position”.
Modric writes in his autobiography, ‘My Game’, which came out last month, that he is calm, obedient and “fears nothing”. He says is “shy but not afraid”.
Asked what his favourite thing is to do on a football pitch, he beams, knowing the answer is unexpected for someone of his size. “Tackle!”
Recognition did not come automatically for the player voted Real Madrid’s worst signing of the season at the end of his first year. He faced criticism coming through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb too.
“There was always a lot of doubt around me – about my quality, my style, my physique,” Modric says. “They said I was too weak to make it to the top but it didn’t affect me. It motivated me more.
“People judge people without knowing them, even more today with social media, which is why I stopped reading it a long time ago. I have my circle and I surround myself with positivity.
“I remember that poll and it wasn’t nice at the time but I believed in myself. I believed I would prove I should be a player for Real Madrid.”
He has two La Liga titles and four in the Champions League, as well a Ballon d’Or and a Golden Ball from the last World Cup, the player of the tournament as Croatia reached the final.
Yet Modric was 32 in Russia, less a late bloomer than one of the finest players of his generation, for whom real appreciation has come late.
– Eyeing the Euros –
“It can be like this because people are always more focused on the players that score a lot of goals or make assists and if they’re not watching matches they need time to notice the players who aren’t doing those things,” says Modric.
“Like David Silva and in the past Xavi (Hernandez), (Andres) Iniesta. Without these kinds of players the team isn’t functioning.
“But I think over time the recognition comes. Sometimes people need time to see it. Eventually I won the Ballon d’Or and the UEFA player of the year. In the end, people noticed.”
Modric will be almost 36 when his contract at Real Madrid expires next summer and he is still to agree an extension.
“At my age you don’t make huge plans,” he says. “It would be fantastic to finish my career in this fantastic club in this fantastic city but it is not my decision. It’s up to Real Madrid.
“There are not many players that finish their career here, very few, but I want to play more years. I want to prove I can still play well and if that’s not at Madrid, I will look at the options.”
Two years ago, there was talk of a move to Italy, with Inter Milan keen. There is also the Premier League, where Modric shone at Tottenham in the same side as Gareth Bale and then almost left for Chelsea.
“I had four great years at Tottenham and enjoyed every bit of my time there,” says Modric. “I still keep in touch with some people at the club.
“Tottenham helped me grow a lot. I follow them still, look at their results, watch them play and always want them to win. We played maybe the best football in England at that time, we just missed a trophy to circle the story.”
Next summer, Modric wants to play for Croatia at the postponed Euro 2020 but he stops short of committing to the World Cup. “I can’t say the World Cup yet,” he says. “The Euros yes. Qatar, let’s see.”
Luka Modric’s autobiography, ‘My Game’, was released on August 20 in the UK, France and Spain.